Puccini’s “Madam Butterfly” from Covent Garden,
Thurs, March 30th at 7.15pm at SGC Dungarvan by Jim Ryan
Booking now open – http://bit.ly/GoreyMadamaButterfly
Back in the dreary days of January, on a trip to Prague, I attended five operas, including a superbly sung “Madam Butterfly”, which was received with loud applause by an enthusiastic audience; as so often, they were moved by the fate of the ill-starred heroine. Puccini is one of the most popular of all opera composers and his operas are among the most performed worldwide every year. His ‘fans’ are in for a treat at the SGC, Dungarvan, with ‘Butterfly’ coming from the Covent Garden, one of the world’s greatest opera houses. Incidentally, followers of modern-day musicals will find a retelling of the opera in “Miss Saigon”. Of further interest to Irish Puccini-lovers is the fact that the composer himself in his assessment of singers of the heroine’s role, declared Mayo-born Margaret Burke-Sheridan (who died in 1958), to be “the only Butterfly”. Leontyne Price, Renate Tebaldi, Victoria de los Angeles and the great Callas have been among the greatest modern interpreters of this, one of the most coveted of all operatic roles.
‘Madam Butterfly’, Puccini’s 6th opera, was first performed on February, 17th, 1904, at La Scala, Milan. Despite having renowned principals (two all-time greats, tenor Giovanni Zenatello and the renowned baritone, Guiseppe de Luca – the latter’s ‘Traviata’ and ‘Rigoletto’ duet recordings with Amelita Galli-Curci are treasures), it was a failure; jeers and catcalls greeted much of its second act. Puccini withdrew it, revised it and only three months later, at Brescia on May 28th, it was greeted with approval and sustained applause. Soon it was an operatic smash hit and ever since it has remained one of the most performed of all operas. It was first performed at Covent Garden in 1905, with Caruso, Antonio Scotti and the peerless Czech soprano, Emmy Destinn – some said she has never had an equal as Butterfly (on a trip to Prague in January, I saw a statue of her in her native city).
My friend, Tommy O’Brien, of RTE Radio fame, was an ardent Puccini ‘fan’ and considered ‘Butterfly’ one of the greatest of all operas. I have written hitherto of how Tommy, playing recordings of the opera, often illustrated for me, at his home in Clonmel, the subtleties and beauties of the composer’s musical genius.
‘Butterfly’ was first performed at The Metropolitan Opera in New York, on Feb, 11th, 1907 – one of my favourite LPs has the recorded highlights of the Met’s first ‘Butterfly’ with Geraldine Farrar, Enrico Caruso, Antonio Scotti and Louise Homer – a cast for the ages! After hearing Caruso in the opera, a critic wrote: “What is he? He is not a singer. He is not a voice. He is a miracle”. Puccini wrote: “Caruso was magnificent, singing like a god”. The libretto is based on a play by David Belasco, which Puccini saw in The Duke of York Theatre, London, in June 1900. He realised the possibilities for an opera based on a clash of American and Japanese cultures.
The tragic tale concerns Cio San, the Japanese fifteen-year-old geisha girl known as Butterfly, who renounces family and religion to marry American naval lieutenant, Benjamin Franklin Pinkerton’. This faithless cad has no intention of making it a permanent marriage. The passionate duet in which they pledge their love, “Un Po di Vero C’e” is one of the most gorgeous duets in all opera. But, from then on it’s a moving story, with the ever-faithful girl being the loser. There’s some lovely music: there’s “One Fine Day”, one of the most loved of all soprano arias, and there’s the Flower Duet, just to mention but a few highlights.
‘Madame Butterfly’ is perennially among the top five in terms of performances annually. Any opera house manager who wants to make a few Euros need look no further than this opera. In the fifty years following its first performance at The ‘Met’ it was performed there an astonishing 360 times. It’s arguably the most popular opera ever composed and it will, no doubt, bring a big audience to The SGC, Dungarvan on March 30th. (Jim Ryan)